Officials offer stern  warning as virus cases climb

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that the city charter for Morristown indicates the city may regulations to stop the spread of contagious disease.  While county officials have no such power, it appears city officials could enact regulations requiring masks. 

NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued a stern warning to the public Wednesday as Tennessee registered its highest daily increase in positive COVID-19 tests for the third time in a week and a half.

But the Republican also said he’s not pursuing a statewide requirement to wear masks in public, and instead is looking into whether more cities and counties have authority to mandate masks. Nashville and Memphis, for example, have already implemented their own mask requirements. Those areas are not under the state Health Department’s jurisdiction.

Other cities, like Chattanooga, have expressed interest in a mask requirement but have been blocked because the Hamilton County health department — also excluded from the health agency’s oversight — has not signed off on the idea.

Health departments in the state’s six larger, urban counties operate under local governance but work closely with the state Health Department.

Lee said a lot of Tennesseans are taking unnecessary risks by packing into bars or taking part in large group activities without social distancing. He noted Wednesday’s record daily confirmed COVID-19 caseload of more than 1,800.

“Don’t put our state two steps backward by refusing to wear a mask or refusing to social distance or refusing to pay attention to something as simple as washing your hands,” Lee said.

Lee also announced an executive order to limit liability due to COVID-19 for health care providers, hospitals, nursing homes and health care workers. He said the law only allows the governor to take that action for health care providers.

Lawmakers last month failed to passed legislation with legal protections for businesses, schools and other organizations. He said he plans to call lawmakers into special session on that issue.

Later Wednesday, the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity urged Lee to call a special session to address not only COVID-19 legal immunity, but also telemedicine and medical certificate of need restriction bills that failed to advance earlier this year.

Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the growth in coronavirus infections is hitting both urban and rural areas.

“Please listen carefully: This is not the time to get back to normal,” Piercey said. “We’re all experiencing what we call quarantine fatigue. But I can guarantee you this virus is not getting tired.”

Hamblen Officials concerned

Hamblen Mayor Bill Brittain said the county, which has been designated a COVID hotspot by the state of Tennessee, is starting to see some challenge in some of its systems.

Hamblen County saw a more than 40-case increase in official numbers from Tuesday to Wednesday and crossed the 100-active cases plateau. And for Brittain, the virus has hit close to home.

One person in the county mayor’s office has tested positive and another has shown symptoms. The office continues to conduct business but members of the general public are not being allowed in.

“It’s been a challenge,” he said. “It brought it home.”

Brittain said Morristown Hamblen Healthcare System remains in a solid position with the equipment needed if the area sees a spike in hospitalizations.

“We’re monitoring the serious cases,” Brittain said, adding the county needs its residents to buy in. “We’ve got to get folks to buy in to the social distancing, to masks in public. I’m trying to do a better job of wearing mine, I’ve found the more I wear it, the more comfortable it gets.

Brttain said the county is staring at a possible difficult situation in the coming months if steps aren’t taken. With the number of cases skyrockting in the summer months, when cold and flu season returns in the fall, it could be dangerous if the community hasn’t taken steps to lessen the curve.

“Everybody needs to protect themselves and protect others,” he said.

Brittian said Hamblen County officials do not have the power to make masks mandatory. However, it appears the city of Morristown does have the power to enact regulations to prevent the spread of contagious disease.